I worry about the reformist instinct in us—to tweak a thing that there's not a lot of evidence works.
Vincent Schiraldi used to run probation in New York City; now he’s questioning whether it should even exist.
Schiraldi is Maryland's Secretary of Juvenile Services. His new book is Mass Supervision: Probation, Parole, and the Illusion of Safety and Freedom.
Schiraldi says some of the roots of mass supervision—and its connection to mass incarceration—can be found in a surprising place: the Supreme Court’s 1963 Gideon decision. It recognized, but failed to adequately support, a poor person’s right to a lawyer.
There are 3.7 million people on probation or parole in the United States, almost twice as many as there are behind bars. Created as an alternative to incarceration, Schiraldi says supervision is too often a conveyor belt back into it.
The use of probation has exploded over the last 40 years, in part because of the growth of plea bargains. Thanks to the Gideon decision, everyone facing incarceration has the right to a lawyer. But a new study estimates it would take $18.5 billion of new funding to ensure public defenders can adequately defend their clients.
Instead, defenders who can’t begin to keep up with their caseloads resort to plea bargains. That’s how 90 to 95 percent of cases end, with defendants giving up their right to a trial.
The incentive is pleading guilty to a lesser charge, often with a sentence of probation.
But Schiraldi says there’s little evidence probation and parole are reducing either crime or the use of incarceration—not that many people are paying attention.
“We should all be in a brawl about this,” he tells New Thinking host, Matt Watkins. For Schiraldi, the solution to experiment with is “incremental abolition”: progressively getting rid of parts of the system and putting the money back into communities.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
Matt WATKINS: Welcome to New Thinking from the Center for Justice Innovation. I’m Matt Watkins.
$18.5 billion dollars. That’s how much a new estimate says is needed to make the promise of the Gideon decision a reality. Sixty years ago, with that decision, the Supreme Court guaranteed a lawyer to any poor person facing incarceration.
But we’ve known for years, public defense providers are critically over-burdened. That multi-billion dollar shortfall is based on a new study of how much time per case defenders would need to provide adequate representation.
It’s been a half-century since those workload standards were adjusted.
When defenders can’t even begin to keep up with their caseloads, what happens? Plea bargains. That’s our justice system: 90 to 95 percent of cases end with the defendant agreeing to plead guilty, giving up their right to a trial.
The incentive is pleading to a lesser charge—and often, those plea bargains are leading to sentences of probation: the system gets to keeps its hooks in you, but you get to avoid incarceration, at least for now.
The use of probation has exploded in recent decades. There are almost 4-million people under some form of supervision in this country. Scholars have dubbed it “mass supervision.”
Vincent Schiraldi used to run New York City’s Probation Department. Today he’s asking whether probation and parole should exist at all. Far from an alternative to incarceration, he says, supervision can be a conveyor belt back into it.
Schiraldi’s new book is Mass Supervision: Probation, Parole, and the Illusion of Safety and Freedom.
For our final episode on Gideon’s 60th anniversary, I talked to Schiraldi about the failures of Gideon and the rise of supervision.
Schiraldi is currently Maryland’s Secretary of Juvenile Services.
I started by asking him: if supervision has gone “mass,” why are so few people paying attention?
Vincent SCHIRALDI: I think that for researchers, philanthropy, advocates, practitioners, it occupies this netherworld. They don't really know what to make of it. They don't feel great about it. But it might be an alternative to incarceration, so we don't want to kill it.
There's historical precedent for that. Whenever probation in the early years got criticized, it was usually by more conservative folks, who wanted to lock those people up. Its defenders were the progressives.
Even though it was already being shown to do some not-so-great things to people, the progressives thought it was just better than incarceration, without really examining whether it was truly an alternative or a net-widener.
WATKINS: We tend to think, "We're giving you this gift of ‘you're avoiding incarceration,’ therefore, be happy with what you've got." Maybe that's bled into the research and general public attention field, too, it sounds like.
SCHIRALDI: And I think also, the times we hear about it, if you're not paying attention, you're hearing about this through the media. Often, the times we're hearing about it through the media, it's because somebody really did get a break.
They really didn't go to prison for something that you'd normally go for, and they got probation instead, or they got out way earlier than they would've otherwise gotten out. That lends a little credence to the notion that it's a true alternative to incarceration.
You don't very often hear, and it's not easy to depict, somebody who the judge just gave probation to because the judge didn't know what else to do, but the judge was never sending that guy to jail.
WATKINS: You've got this great quote from Elie Wiesel about "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." Essentially, we have become indifferent to the harms of this system and indifferent to what's happening to the millions of people who are on supervision.
SCHIRALDI: I was an advocate before I went into probation, ran a couple of nonprofits—the Center on Juvenile Criminal Justice, the Justice Policy Institute—for 25 years. That's where I thought I'd spend my whole career.
Before I went into government work, I thought a lot of stuff happened because of animus: "We hate these people, and we're going to do bad things to them." Once I went inside, I almost wonder if it's worse, but a lot of it was just lethargy, indifference, apathy.
SCHIRALDI: Yep. "I did this yesterday, I'm going to do this tomorrow, 20 years from now I’ll collect a pension." I feel like a lot of what happens with probation and parole is that.
"I don't really hate you, but I think it might work out if you stayed in the community, Matt. You tested positive for drugs. You missed a couple of appointments. What your original offense was wasn't that harmful.
"But now I've got to weigh your liberty and my ability to pay my mortgage and send my kid to college. I think I'm going to bet on college and my kid, not your liberty. So, you're going to go to prison or jail, not because I hate you or think you're dangerous, but because I am risk-averse."
WATKINS: And then we don't even ask the question, "Is this working? Is this doing what we say it's supposed to be doing?"
SCHIRALDI: That's right. It's just an assumed thing. I really do remember when I interviewed with Mayor Bloomberg to be Probation Commissioner. I had never worked in probation, certainly never run any smaller probation departments, and here I was, interviewing to run one of the nation's largest.
After he got past my New York City bona fides—which he was pretty happy about that I grew up here in Greenpoint, I went to a local high school, I went to SUNY Binghamton for college—he almost couldn't look me in the eye when he said, "So, uh, what do you think about probation?"
I think that that moment describes what everybody thinks about probation—which is not much. That's what I said: "Not much. It's a poor service given to poor people. Most politicians don't give a shit about it." By that point, Bloomberg had dropped the F-bomb several times, so I felt safe saying "shit."
Then we got into a brawl with me and him and his deputy mayors: "What should we do about it? We should try this. We should try that." I think that's what we should all be in now. We should be in a brawl about this. It's almost more important that we debate it and that we pressure-test it, than whatever the particular solution is.
Because I’m betting if you just step back, which is what I encouraged the mayor to do, I said, "Imagine if I gave you $80 million"—and he of all people could actually imagine that amount of money—"and 30,000 troubled and troubling souls, which was the budget and caseload of New York City probation at the time, and said, ‘Do anything you want with this money to make the city safer and to help turn these people's lives around.’
"I'm pretty sure what you wouldn't do is go out and hire 1,000 civil-service-protected, disinterested bureaucrats to have them piss in a cup once a week and tell them to go forth and sin no more.” He said, ‘Nope. I probably wouldn't do that.’ That's when the brawl broke out. We all started trying to figure out what you would do.
That's where I think we should all be.
WATKINS: And you put them in this structure where they're going to be very risk-averse and always worried about the one case that goes wrong and their butts hanging out on it.
SCHIRALDI: It's not even just that, because I know that the more dramatic stuff about probation and parole is the actual moment they get revoked. But a lot of people I've spoken to describe how torturous it is along the way, where you have to go and sit in the Bronx waiting room, waiting to see your PO.
Sometimes that's a 15-minute wait, and sometimes that PO, behind several layers of bureaucracy, is in the middle of an emergency, so you're waiting two-and-a-half hours.
WATKINS: You can't go to your job during the whole of that.
SCHIRALDI: So now you're trying to sneak this in over lunch, and you've got to make a decision somewhere around an hour, an hour-and-15 minutes into it: "Who am I pissing off today? Am I pissing off my PO, who could send me to jail, or am I pissing off my boss, who could fire me?"
There was story after story of that. Literally, within the first month of coming to work in New York City probation, I visited the Manhattan office, met a bunch of my POs. Somebody said, "Hey, why don't we go into court? Because I think there's a couple of probation cases being heard before Judge So-and-so."
So, in we go, and when we walk in, there's a woman convulsed in tears, asking the judge to revoke her probation and send her to Rikers Island, because we won't let her bring her child to her meetings with my PO into an office, and she's just run out of favors.
She lives in Harlem. She's got to schlep all the way down to Lower Manhattan, so that's an hour-and-a-half, just to start. Then who knows how long she's waiting?
An hour, two hours to see that PO. Hour-and-a-half back. Now we're talking four or five hours. She doesn't have money for a babysitter, so she's running out of favors. Who's going to take care of her four-year-old in the middle of a day?
The judge totally believed her and did revoke her probation, gave her six months at Rikers, and then she was done with probation. She would rather serve time in Rikers.
I looked at some survey in the book where two-thirds of people in Texas prisons said they'd rather do a year in Texas prisons than 10 years on probation.
WATKINS: There's just so many conditions associated with both probation and parole. Any one of them can be this tripwire to being incarcerated or re-incarcerated.
Maybe we should just pause for a minute and just do some definitions for people.
We're going to be talking about community supervision, which is both probation and parole, and they've both mushroomed over recent decades in tandem with mass incarceration, but probation is much bigger than parole. So maybe we should just break that down briefly a little bit for people.
SCHIRALDI: Sure. So, probation started in the 1840s, invented by a bootmaker in Boston who went in and bailed people out while they were facing time in their notorious House of Corrections, and said, "I'll work with this person, Judge. I'll bring them back improved, and if they do, return the bail to me and let them go."
That was the birth of probation—John Augustus. So, it was an alternative at the front end.
Parole is an alternative at the back end. If you play by the rules in jail, or in prison mostly, and you participate in programs, you can get out early. But both of them are conditional releases, conditioned upon you behaving in the community.
Then what's happened over time, as the world turned more punitive, is behaving in the community became dozens of conditions: "Don't leave the county without permission. Don't stay out past dark. Don't associate with somebody else with a criminal record. Don't get a credit card without asking for permission."
WATKINS: "Don't go to Applebee's if they serve alcohol."
SCHIRALDI: Right. So, these conditions just piled on people, and as the nation became more punitive, the adherence to them became more and more strict. So, in the past, really, you were working to rehabilitate the person. Did you really care how much they associated with their brother-in-law, who had a felony record? Not so much.
Now I'm meeting guys that say, "I can't go home. My mother's got a bedroom for me. But I'm in this homeless shelter because she's got a felony record, and my PO won't let me go there."
Or another guy who went to prison for marrying a woman with a felony conviction. We have to ask ourselves: We're either going to assume POs are just sadistic bastards, and surely there are some like that, but that is not the middle of the bell curve, as far as I'm concerned.
WATKINS: No, and we're not talking about individuals, right?
WATKINS: We're talking about the structures.
SCHIRALDI: So, then what makes a guy do that? What makes a guy lock another guy up because he marries someone with a felony conviction, knowing, by the way, that at its peak, one out of 12 Black men were on probation and one out of three Black men have a felony conviction? So, how's that one out of 12 not going to associate with that one out of three?
WATKINS: You then have this situation now, what are called technical violations, where you break the rules of your probation or parole, which these rules are vastly different and lower than, say, what would apply in criminal law.
You break one of those rules, you get a technical violation, and for decades, that's been driving jail and prison populations, right?
SCHIRALDI: One out of every four people entering our highest-in-the-world prison system enter not for new crime, but for a technical non-criminal violation of probation or parole; costs almost $3 billion a year.
WATKINS: It's clear from the book that you show there's very little evidence or research to support the idea that probation or parole is a real alternative to incarceration, or that it is helping with rehabilitation or treatment, or that it's strengthening public safety. It doesn't seem to be doing any of those things.
There's a temptation to call it failed, a failed system. Yet, that masks that it is doing what it is doing. It is serving a function. I just wonder if you've grappled with that. What is the actual function, then, of probation and parole?
SCHIRALDI: I think the biggest function, really, if you step back and look at what's the system think it's getting from this, I think that it's scary to do nothing when somebody breaks the law. Probation and parole are something. You didn't just get to walk out of court after you got accused of a crime and convicted of a crime.
You didn't just get to walk out of prison—you did something bad enough to go to prison—you didn't just get to walk out of prison at the end of that a completely free man. It just makes us feel as if something is being done.
The question is, what is that that's being done? Could we get that done in a different way? How much money are we willing to spend on that feeling if that feeling's not delivering on its promise?
Its two promises are: reduce incarceration, reduce crime. I think I give ample evidence in the book that it does neither.
WATKINS: So, we're talking in the year of the 60th anniversary of the Gideon decision, recognizing a poor person's right to a lawyer when they're facing incarceration. But I want to talk a little bit about the role that inadequate public defense has played in the explosion of probation and parole.
When I say "inadequate," of course, I'm not talking about individual public defenders—some are better than others, sure—but we're talking about the real structural problems that public defenders face and the role that's played in the growth of supervision.
First, could we talk a little bit about the role that plea bargaining plays within the system: historically how that emerged, and then what are the implications of that?
SCHIRALDI: Just going back a little, so now we're talking late 1800s, early 1900s. There's an explosion in immigrants moving to the United States and people moving into cities from rural areas and Black people traveling north from the South a little later on.
The cities are overwhelmed by this. People are working long hours in sweatshops. Kids are running in the street. It's in these environments that we start to invent and expand a bunch of the things that we now know as regular stuff.
So, we start to invent juvenile institutions, because these kids are running in the street while their parents are working. We expand probation and parole dramatically.
And we start plea bargaining like crazy, because our courts have been walloped with all of these cases of people that are flooding into them, at a time when we really weren't running government the way we think of government now. We didn't have a lot of government apparatus to absorb all this stuff. So, we start to build it there.
WATKINS: It's an improvised response to this unexpected volume of cases.
SCHIRALDI: Massive volume of cases. Cities are tripling in size.
Probation and parole are under heavy criticism at the time. So, there were some states that had it, some states that didn't, and they're saying, "Why do we need this? It's not doing anything."
What keeps it from going away? Well, one thing that keeps it going away is that it is something, as I said before. Now you're in court. You can't possibly try all these cases if you're a judge or a prosecutor.
Public defender's not going to give up or whoever the defense attorney is—it was pre-Gideon, obviously—is not going to just give up and let their client go to incarceration. So, probation essentially becomes a grease skidder.
It's greasing the wheels of justice by allowing a court to feel like they did something. At least they put you on probation, even if they couldn't jail you. Prosecutor feels, okay? Done. Next case.
WATKINS: And it's greasing the wheels how? It's greasing the wheels to a plea bargain, right?
SCHIRALDI: To a plea bargain, yeah. So now you can plead out to something. Defense attorney wasn't going to accept a plea to incarceration. Prosecutor wasn't going to accept a plea to nothing. Now we got something. This is at a time when people were complaining that 50 percent of the cases were pled out.
Fifty percent today would be a joke. Nobody can achieve 50 percent; it's in the nineties, 95 percent of cases that are being pled out now.
So, I think especially if you're poor and you are subject to defense by an overwhelmed defender in a poor county that gives very little resources to its public defense office, you could see how this may be truly an alternative to incarceration. It may also be an alternative to acquittal.
WATKINS: Right, and it's an alternative to due process, though, too, right?
SCHIRALDI: Certainly, an alternative to due process.
WATKINS: Public defenders, staggering under these huge caseloads, are having to do a lot of quick plead-outs.
SCHIRALDI: That's right.
WATKINS: Probation is seen as something like, "Hey, it's better than incarceration, so we don't think about it too much." We'll never know the numbers, but lots of people will plead to a probation sentence even if they know they didn't do what they're charged with, just to get the threat of incarceration removed.
SCHIRALDI: In my 43 years in this field, I've met a ton of people and hung out with a ton of people who are formerly incarcerated. Almost every one of them says, "Oh, yeah, I definitely pled to stuff I didn't do. I also got away with stuff I did. But no question I pled to stuff I didn't do because it was better than the alternative," especially if you're incarcerated pretrial.
The Kalief Browder story is a stunning story for many, many reasons and a tragic one. One of the most interesting parts about it for somebody who's a wonk in this field is how tough this kid was.
He is in there, getting beaten up by staff, getting beaten up in Rikers Island by other incarcerated people, literally going crazy in solitary confinement, and he refuses to plead out, even though the judge in his case, Judge DiMango, offers him a plea to nothing.
He could walk out. Not a lot of 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds would stay in Rikers Island if they could walk out. But he said, "I am not pleading to this. I'm not guilty."
WATKINS: Right, he wouldn't follow the template.
SCHIRALDI: He wouldn't follow the template, yeah.
WATKINS: So, we have this growth of plea bargaining, probation is there to provide this release, in a way. None of this was intended. These are a series of unforeseen events triggered in some ways by just the volume of cases entering the system.
SCHIRALDI: Yeah, and I think that part of what I saw in the book and just in my experience is how once that's all done—the prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, they've moved on now and the person's on probation for three years, five years, whatever it is—everybody else forgets about them.
This is where you may be getting probation as an alternative to freedom or as an alternative to due process becomes especially sticky, because once you're in it, then I can deprive you of your liberty for virtually nothing: for staying out past seven o'clock at night; for getting a credit card without permission; for associating, for dating somebody with a felony record; or having a beer with your buddies on the way home from work.
Those are things for which people can and do get incarcerated with stunningly little due process. So, you went from this moment where maybe you weren't grabbing all the due process you could, but at least you had the chance of getting acquitted or convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.
WATKINS: Before you took the plea, you still had that chance.
SCHIRALDI: You still had those rights. Now you can be incarcerated for a non-crime without the right to counsel, without the right to remain silent, and without the right to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
It's just a preponderance of evidence standard. If you've ever sat in a courtroom or a parole hearing where that is the standard, you understand how quickly that devolves into a kangaroo court.
WATKINS: I was just talking actually to a former prosecutor who was talking about doing revocation hearings when he first started out and how easy it was to get wins in those settings because the same due process laws you face in other forums just didn't apply.
SCHIRALDI: Sure, and also how long it takes. On parole, they detain you while you're awaiting for this due process. Well, hell, sometimes you can actually say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I went out of the county without asking permission" and get less time than you would get if you exercise your full due process rights.
So, people have to do that math all the time. They've got families at home. They've got to pay the rent. They might be able to go back out and get their job—pleading to one more technical violation, they've got to do the math on how much they care about that.
So, in an effort to get people into what's considered a better disposition—probation, let's say—sometimes you sign away important due process rights that might later incarcerate them for a thing they wouldn't have been incarcerated for in the first place.
One researcher, Cecelia Klingele out of the University of Wisconsin, called it a delayed form of incarceration, not an alternative to incarceration.
WATKINS: You've constantly got this sword hanging over your head. The gun of incarceration, I guess, some people have called it.
So, for public defenders, it seems like the solution would be dealing with their caseloads, that we've set up this system whereby they cannot adequately defend people. Sometimes people refer to this: they're not doing justice, they're just doing triage.
We had Keisha Hudson, the Chief Defender of Philadelphia, on our first episode in this series talk about, she has to have this hard conversation with new public defenders, which is, "It's hard for them to hear when I tell them, 'You can't be effective.'"
SCHIRALDI: Yeah, this ain't Perry Mason.
WATKINS: You can't be effective, meaning you are going to have to accept a lot of pleas and drive up probation.
SCHIRALDI: Yeah, and my daughter works for Keisha, she's a public defender on homicides in Philadelphia. I particularly have studied Philadelphia because that's where Meek Mill's case came from, a famous musician who was violated on a technical violation a decade after he got on probation.
In Philadelphia, sometimes between 40 and 50 percent of their jail population, again, is not in on a new crime. They're in on probation and parole holds. They're just waiting to go to a revocation hearing.
This is not a small bit of the system. There's twice as many people under supervision as are in prison and jail in America. And we've got a lot of people in prison and jail in America. So, it's 3.7 million people are under supervision, and about a little less than 2 million are in jail and prison.
WATKINS: And in some parts of the country, as you talk about in the book, like in Philadelphia, you have hugely more people per capita on supervision, and it's a very racialized concentration.
SCHIRALDI: What happens to a neighborhood when this many young Black men particularly are on probation, parole, out on bail, out on supervised pretrial release, when the government has its hands in that many people? Again, I'm not saying my POs are bad people, but my goodness, you think about what we could do with some of these neighborhoods to help them achieve safety.
If we could capture those resources and say, "Let's go to some of these hard-hit neighborhoods and put the kinds of resources into them that we will eventually spend on probation, parole, prison, and jail, and let's see.”
Let's study two neighborhoods side by side. You lock-em-up folks, you have your way. We'll supervise the hell out of them, and they step a toe out of line, we'll put them back in jail. And let's see what happens over there, if we have a bunch of places like the Center for Justice Innovation and the Vera Institute and the Fortune Society and some community groups work it out and design what this neighborhood safety is going to be.
I would put my money on the community groups over bureaucrats that I've supervised any day, including myself.
WATKINS: Then public defenders, too, and I think some of their clients know about this thing called the trial penalty, which is if you don't follow the template and you don't do what the system is placing every incentive in front of you to do and just plead out, take probation, if you force the system to put on a trial for you, they're going to punish you for that.
SCHIRALDI: Yeah, and it's interesting, I cite David Rothman's historical work quite a bit in the book, and he takes you through the emergence of that, where you simultaneously have judges being concerned about how little due process there is and how that's being encroached upon.
At the same time, they're saying, "But of course, if somebody doesn't put the state to the burden of convicting them, I'm going to take that into account when I sentence them."
It doesn't take long for defendants and defense attorneys to do that math and know they're much better off if they plead.
WATKINS: So, structurally, inadequate public defense is playing an important role in this pernicious growth of probation and parole. If we start to look at some of your solutions, you make the case that community supervision should at least be substantially downsized and efforts to make it less punitive.
But then you say, looking at the long history of these reformist efforts, that kind of effort is unlikely to succeed.
And I wonder what's brought you to that conclusion.
SCHIRALDI: It's so easy for us to switch on our risk-averse muscle, and we're seeing it right now. It's a relatively short, by comparison to historical standards, uptick in crime post-pandemic and lots of indications that it's already starting to come down. But look at how quickly our elected officials started to amp up their punitive muscle.
WATKINS: It feels like the default.
SCHIRALDI: Yeah, and so I worry about the reformist instinct in us, the incremental instinct in us, to tweak a thing that there's not a lot of evidence works at a very elemental level—probation and parole—and suggest we at least try abolition.
I was an expert on a case in Giles County, Tennessee, where there was a private probation company. People were being ordered onto private probation if they didn't pay fines and committed low-level crimes—private misdemeanor probation.
The Civic Justice Corps [read: Civil Rights Corps] sued and said that these people are engaged in usurious behavior, and they're usurping judges' powers, charging people inordinate amounts of money to be on private probation who couldn't originally pay a fine. Then those people are being incarcerated—essentially for poverty—and we won.
So now Giles County, Tennessee, has no misdemeanor probation, and I keep trying to find data, but I'm pretty sure most of the citizens of Giles County, Tennessee, have no idea that misdemeanor probation disappeared.
It's like Marty Horn, my predecessor at probation in New York City, who used to also run parole for New York State and ran corrections in Pennsylvania… so, long resume. Marty said, "If I took all the parole officers in New York out on a cruise for a month, would anybody know the difference? Because with the kind of money we're spending on parole, the answer damn well better be yes."
I think the answer is no. I think the answer might be no, but I'm open. Study it. Study what we spent and make it a fair fight. Put that money into communities to provide supports. See how it does.
WATKINS: It seems like the studies are out there already that show the lighter the touch of supervision there is right down to just having it be like a kiosk check-in, you get better results. There's been experiments with intensive supervision, and those haven't brought forth good results either, right?
SCHIRALDI: That's right. Both ends. The more intense the supervision is, the worse people do. The less intense the supervision is, people at least do no worse, maybe a little better.
WATKINS: So, make your best case then for this strange beast you're calling incremental abolitionism, which you say many reformers are not going to like, although to me, and I mean this in a good sense, I think they should like it. It sounds really just like on the more aggressive side of reform. But incremental abolitionism…
SCHIRALDI: It's either more aggressive incrementalism or less aggressive abolition.
SCHIRALDI: It depends on your point of view. But yeah, I think that we should put our eyes on the prize and say, "We think maybe this thing doesn't need to exist. But let's get there slowly. Let's chip away at it. Let's get rid of it for people on misdemeanor offenses and study it.
“Let's get rid of it for people with determinate sentences so that they don't get denied parole for lack of a parole officer being there when they come out. Let's carefully calculate how much that would cost and put it into the community, whether we take that from the Department of Corrections budget or just fund it from the general fund, and then let's really study the hell out of it."
WATKINS: So, let's abolish pieces of the system? Start with the lowest-hanging stuff and work our way up, basically?
SCHIRALDI: I've talked to some commissioners of corrections. They're like, "Yeah, we don't really get much for our parole dollars. When people come out on parole, it's very difficult to get my staff to help them and very easy for my staff to revoke them."
So, let's do away with that, or let's do away with it for part of a state and the other part of the state stay as is and then compare, compare the results.
Who should be afraid of that? Who thinks we're getting this much public safety and this much rehabilitation out of either probation or parole that they say we can't even study it? I think it's an idea worth experimenting in. Whether politicians will be courageous enough to experiment in it at this time, I don't know.
Remember, when I started writing this book three, four years ago, things were different. The wind was at our backs. It might've been a more viable option three, four years ago, ten minutes after George Floyd was killed, for example. It might've been something that some courageous mayor or governor would do.
But that time will come again. I've been around this long enough to know these things happen in cycles, and there'll come a time again when people are willing to take a shot at this.
WATKINS: So, you've been doing this, as you said, for 43 years. You've worn a lot of hats, but you're very far from an armchair critic of this system. It's come up already: you ran the probation system in New York City, you had the immensely difficult job of trying to deal with Rikers, but were only given seven months to do it, between the mayoral administrations of Bill de Blasio and Eric Adams.
You are now Secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. Why is it important to you to keep jumping into the fray like this? For someone who's so critical of the system, it's got to be difficult to be running important pieces of it at different times.
SCHIRALDI: One of the things I learned from coming inside is how much power people inside have that they just leave on the table.
When I was Commissioner of Probation in New York City, I worked with my staff, and we cut violations by 45 percent. We increased requests for early discharge six-fold. Now, the judges had to grant those requests. But we still made them, and the judges granted them a whole bunch of times.
Then we had the state research it, and guess what? The guys that got off earlier had lower recidivism rates than the people that stayed on for the full amount of time.
That also now gives me a platform to say, "Maybe we should try something even more profound," not as a formerly incarcerated person or as a researcher, who we should listen to as well, but as a practitioner, and for some people that has more meaning.
WATKINS: Yeah, and you're back to working in juvenile work now, which is, I think, where you began as a practitioner. There, it just must feel particularly urgent when you see the harms that the system can cause.
SCHIRALDI: It's particularly urgent, and we're starting to revisit some of the backlash that we saw during the super predator era. So. none of us should be resting. If this 64-year-old can keep picking this fight, all you young folks listening to this should be picking this fight times ten. We, my generation, Baby Boomers, messed this up. We are leaving you a lousy hand, and I hope you do better than we did.
WATKINS: Well, Vinny, thank you for the work that you're doing in this regard, and congratulations on the book, which just makes a great case. So, thank you, and thank you for being here.
SCHIRALDI: Thanks a lot, Matt. Appreciate it.
WATKINS: That was my conversation with Vinny Schiraldi. His new book is Mass Supervision: Probation, Parole, and the Illusion of Safety and Freedom.
One quick clarification: that Tennessee lawsuit Schiraldi mentioned, was brought by the Civil Rights Corps. For more info about today’s episode, including a transcript, click the link in your show notes or go to innovatingjustice.org/newthinking.
Our thanks to Arnold Ventures for their support of this series and of all of the Gideon at 60 work at the Center for Justice Innovation. My thanks as well to Fiona Doherty, Michelle Phelps, and Dylan Hayre, and to my colleagues, Lisa Vavonese, Alysha Hall, Michelle Carmon, and Elijah Michel.
Today’s episode was edited and produced by me, and it was recorded by the jocose Bill Harkins. Julian Adler is New Thinking’s executive producer. Samiha Amin Meah is our director of design. Emma Dayton is our V-P of outreach. And our theme music is by Michael Aharon at quivernyc.com.
This has been New Thinking from the Center for Justice Innovation. I’m Matt Watkins. Thanks for listening.